Considerations for collecting electronic signatures

Posted on:
Authors:
Sarah Hughes
Shawn Marsh
A man photocopies a document
Photo: Shutterstock.com

Since the spread of COVID-19, researchers across the globe have experienced the challenges of conducting research in a socially distant manner. Many processes have shifted from in-person to virtual methods, including a shift to online and phone surveys (please see the related blog here about phone survey methods), and collecting consent electronically. This blog provides an overview of how to obtain signatures—for example, to document informed consent, or to execute a legal agreement--without physical contact. The most appropriate method will vary by project; factors to consider include technological capabilities, legal requirements, Institutional Review Board (IRB) requirements, and study design. This document provides a high-level overview of different methods.

Considerations for collecting electronic signatures

  • Confirm with partners that electronic signatures in general and the method selected in particular is acceptable and legal. For example, one project found signatures obtained via DocuSign (explained below) are not accepted in a particular state, but signatures collected by an alternative (hellosign.com) were legally recognized. If electronic signatures are not accepted altogether, consider ways of securely obtaining hard copies.
  • If obtaining signatures for consent, confirm with the IRB that electronic signatures are acceptable. Indicate in the original IRB materials if using electronic signatures. If changing to an electronic signature after obtaining IRB approval (for example, in response to COVID-19), contact the IRB prior to making this change to determine whether a formal amendment request is necessary. Confirm with the IRB that all aspects of collecting the signature (e.g., how you are sending and collecting the form and signature) meet appropriate levels of security. Many IRBs have updated guidance around both electronic and verbal consent. While this blog does not address verbal consent, this may be another viable option to reduce in-person contact with human subjects.

Methods of collecting electronic signatures

  • Scanned signature. In this method, the signatory signs a physical piece of paper and scans or uploads the document to return to the researchers via email. If the person signing does not have access to a scanner, there are phone apps that can take a picture and upload the document (e.g., CamScanner). Confirm the security of any apps used to scan or send documents.
  • Signature entered into a Word or PDF document. This could be a typed signature entered into a fillable form PDF, or an image of a signature that the signatory pastes into a document. Consider encrypting email attachments and providing instructions for return encryption if the form contains Personally Identifiable Information (PII).
  • Electronic signature software. There are a variety of software options that collect electronic signatures. The exact methods vary, but generally the recipient will receive a notification, such as via email, asking for a signature and providing instructions. Software options that work to primarily collect signatures include DocuSign and Hellosign.
    • DocuSign has a variety of relatively inexpensive options (ranging from $120 to $480 annually), and was noted as being particularly easy for those being asked to sign a document.
    • Hellosign.com is another relatively inexpensive software (ranging from $156 to $480 annually) that has been used in a recent J-PAL project. The team found it easy to incorporate into the research process, and also easy to upload the consent into the online system of their partner organization.
  • Integrate signature process into survey software: Many survey software systems have the ability to collect electronic signatures. This type of software is often adaptable, and the signature itself may involve checking a box/filling in a bubble to acknowledge consent, a typed signature, a drawn signature if using touchscreen technology, entering a Social Security number (or other PIN/password) for high security situations, or an image of a signature.
    • SurveyCTO, primarily an electronic survey platform, can also collect electronic signatures. Because it is intended for broader use than signature collection, it is more expensive than signature-only software (the lowest-priced advertised SurveyCTO plan is $2,376 annually). SurveyCTO also has a Community Contract that allows free use of the software for up to 200 submissions per month. This software was also noted as being easy for those providing signatures. 
    • Confirmit provides a range of technological solutions including survey design and sampling. Users can integrate electronic consent processes into larger survey design and collection activities.
    • Random Assignment, Participant Tracking, Enrollment and Reporting RAPTER® is a modular system that can scale to support projects ranging from a simple random assignment site to a full-fledged case management and participant tracking system. RAPTER® is designed with a completely secure and cloud-native infrastructure to scale from single-site evaluations to nationwide studies while keeping data safe. Electronic consent and assent can be built into the larger project system.

Choosing the appropriate method

  • Each method has a variety of pros and cons that should be considered for each study. Always consider ethical and legal context, as well as any regulations and recommendations set by the IRB. Broad suggestions about context and signature type are noted below.
  • Lower-tech methods such as collecting a scanned signature, or a signature entered via a Word or PDF document, might be commonplace in some circumstances. Entities that commonly sign legal documents such as contracts or data use agreements, or those who sign documents frequently (e.g., judges or lawyers) may have experience with various acceptable methods for providing electronic signatures. Populations with less experience providing signatures may need more guidance from study staff on exactly how to provide an acceptable signature.
  • Electronic signature software may be useful when collecting signatures from many people, and when populations may have limited knowledge of signing PDF or Word documents. In addition, they minimize troubleshooting with individual respondents and processing emails with attachments (as handling Word/PDF signatures may require).
  • Survey or data collection software solutions (such as SurveyCTO, Confirmit, RAPTER®) offer full integration with data collection. A research team can collect signatures for consent, deliver surveys, and manage data collection within a single system. This method may be particularly attractive for larger projects that have both survey and other data collection components.
Posted by Amanda Lee, Sarah Hughes, Senior Fellow, Mathematica, and Shawn Marsh, Associate Director, Mathematica.